“Reality” tv.

It always seems it ought to be in quotes, doesn’t it; so much of it is every bit as staged and carefully framed as the elaborate fictions that make up our modern-day “Peak TV” landscape.

You have your major sub-genres of it – as far as I can tell, these are “Humans behave very badly to one another,” “Purposefully spectacular transformation,” and “Clash of skills” – though of course these do bleed into one another.

I’ve never had much truck with the first of these – people are quite awful enough to one another without me seeking that out on purpose – but I will confess to a bit of a weakness for a show or two here and there from the latter two categories.

I mean, even as I am aware exactly how choreographed Queer Eye probably is – surely must be, because almost nothing in real life moves through an arc that clear and direct – it’s hard to resist the appeal of the idea.  The super-team of kind and clever folk who sweep in to teach a struggling person how to love themselves and live their truth…who isn’t at least a little into that?

The Great British Bake-Off presents us with an alternate universe in which everything is cheery pavilions lined with bunting and delicious-looking desserts and the very worst thing that can possibly happen to you is that a pleasant grandmotherly British person tells you that perhaps that sponge was a bit too dry.

Masterchef is ostensibly a competition based on pure skill, one where the primary appeal is watching the food being made and the hosts’ by-play.  Watching people cook is enjoyable, of course; as I was once told by a tour guide in Prague “There are three things you can watch forever.  The sea, fire, and other people working.”  It’s true, and watching people at work is as compelling here as it is anywhere else, but unlike a normal cooking show, this one comes haunted by vague uncertainty.

How much of this is true? How much of any of this is real?

That’s just it, of course.  The answer is “none of it”; despite the label we give the genre, this kind of thing isn’t a documentary even in aspiration. Reality only in the sense that what we see has the trappings of reality.  The names may be real, the places.  The products placed just so in the scenario are almost certainly real, whether or not the effects attributed to them are.

It’s an escape, every bit as much as the most grandiose fantasy film or the most elaborately-constructed romance.  Perhaps it’s a little bit more palatable to some folks if their escape hatch of choice looks a little bit more like what they see every day.  We all need the escapes, for sure; the world is dark enough.  Hard enough.

Tuning in, I might feel a sort of perverse delight in the doublethink of it all – it’s real, it’s not real, does it matter whether it’s real? – and also a sort of vague, ill-defined shame.  I’m not supposed to find anything to like there at all; isn’t it a bit like I’ve been caught devouring an entire pint of ice cream on the sofa in my pajamas?  Don’t I have artistic aspirations, however poorly-defined they may be?  Shouldn’t I be queueing up something a bit more challenging?

But there are plenty of days when I feel too exhausted, after the office and the household planning and management and the constant encroachment of day-to-day nonsense on every little corner of my brain, no matter how it craves to do other things.

And sometimes, on days like that, it is pleasant to look at spectacular cake.

Another first date

So here’s a little project that’s meant to help me break through a bit of…something. I would call it a creative block, if that were fitting – if I had that One Great Story in me, blocked only by an unfortunate convergence of words. Or perhaps a failed convergence. (Would “divergence” be better? No matter.)

A reconnection, maybe. Hopefully. 500 words, semi-regularly, about…anything I can manage to muster 500 words about. To see what happens if I try it. To see if anything happens if I try it.

To see if I can even DO it. I’ve tried before, with less ambitious goals.

And so, blank page, here we are. How is it that we can have had so many first dates and yet it is still as awkward as ever?

Somehow I didn’t get rained on en route home today, despite it being the sort of weather one sees described in books as “leaden.” Thick, gray clouds heaving water down onto earth too lethargic to groan under the weight; damp heat creeping up and in and under your clothes and into your lungs until lying down and choking under it starts to seem like a viable option.

Not that I did; instead I walked home past the squirrels busily ferrying walnuts to parts unknown and the sodden playground and the incongruous, hilarious “Thug Lyfe” someone has written with a stick, or a finger, in the pavement – printed letters in a schoolroom-tidy hand that is about as far removed from said Thug Lyfe as I am from ancient Phoenicia.

Though I guess Phoenicia did give us our alphabet, after a fashion, so perhaps it’s not as far as all that, if you look at it a certain way?

And now we’ve talked about the weather. Might as well tick off all the awkward-date boxes.

…So. How about those sportsball scores?

Somewhere behind me, out in the dark, a little colony of rabbits is getting on about its business. I see one every so often, loping across the garden path in the twilight – though only the one. There must be more, but where? I wonder whose shed they live behind, or under; I wonder if they live a kind of urban Watership Down life, telling and retelling stories of El-ahrairah as burlesque or beat poetry to one another so that the generations of rabbits after them will at least know the tales of those stars the streetlamps are too bright to let them see.

They’re just rabbits, I hear in my head as I write that. It’s a sensible, practical voice, the same one that reminds me that I need to buy milk and that I forgot to finish that thing at the office and didn’t the dryer beep about, oh, thirty minutes ago?

Perhaps that’s where all the creativity has gone – drowned in an ocean of to-do lists and sensible shoes, weighed down by a five-pound bag of flour and old clothes that never fit and yet wore through and about eighteen billion lost pens.

Perhaps this is foolish. It certainly feels that way. Like an excellent way of saying something stupid, of making someone angry with me, of bringing down on my head wrath or scorn or shame.

Maybe there is nothing to find?

If there were, would I know it if I found it?

…Ah, well.

Alea iacta est.

Of sunless things

So some friends of ours have expressed an interest in going to this, perhaps making it into a road trip of a couple of weeks or so. I’m not that much of a hot air balloon person, and I’m really not the kind of morning person I think you’d need to be in order to be feeling gleeful at the prospect of getting up at 3:30 AM for a morning event (ouch), but on the other hand it seems like the sort of thing that might be worth doing at least once in your life…so it looks like I’ve got some trip planning research ahead of me.

In other news, we’ve recently started the sequel to Failbetter Games’s Sunless Sea, Sunless Skies. The first game is gloriously niche – you pilot a tiny ship through a vast underground cavern dotted here and there with islands and heavily populated with menaces ranging from your standard pirates to terrifying Lovecraftian horrors. As you sail, you encounter dozens of weird and entertaining little storylets – mini-plots for all of your officers, and on each island a little thicket of tales to explore that highlight the creativity of the worldbuilding. There’s a range of victory conditions to pursue, too, ranging from the somewhat mundane (become fabulously wealthy!) to the enticingly mysterious (join an adventurer in a quest to pass through the Avid Horizon, a frigid and desolate place containing a gate to…somewhere. We loved it.

And yet we’ve only finished one of its many victory conditions. Why? Because it’s a roguelike, a decision that I still find baffling. Dying and returning to the start of something makes sense for many games, but not for one where a death can easily wipe out twenty hours of gameplay. Moreover, it can be intensely frustrating to have to re-do the first part of all of your quests many many many times before living long enough to see the end of them, setting up a weird dynamic where you find yourself rushing to try to complete things before a horror from below rips your tiny ship in half. (I’ve learned there’s a mod available that can mitigate this somewhat by not re-setting quest progress on death; this might be worth a go if i want to read more of the game’s stories.)

The second game is a roguelike as well, sadly, though they’ve made the wise decision to make the goodies you can pass on to your next captain more generous. (There IS a more merciful game mode that permits save-scumming, but naturally with Mark on the team we couldn’t go for that one.) That said, our only death so far was wiped out by the game’s locking up on us (it seems that there are some growing pains with version 1.0 as it emerges from Early Access.) There’s gamepad support this time, though it feels rather janky – it’s startlingly difficult to keep your vessel moving in a straight line. Hopefully kinks that will be smoothed out as the release progresses.

This installment in the…is it a franchise now?…takes as its premise the notion that someone, at least, was successful in passing through the Avid Horizon as I mentioned above – and as it turned out, what was beyond that was a skyscape full of new wonders. And terrors, because obviously.

Ten years on, control of the skies is a battle between The Establishment and the scrappy colonists who believe this new frontier is rightly theirs. This conflict forms the backdrop for your own story, which begins with you as first officer on a small but scrappy sky-train recently returned from the land of the dead (somehow.) The voyage did not go well for the former captain, who as the game begins is dying of…something, a strange illness that covers her skin in glowing sigils. In exchange for passing the ship on to you, she requests a promise: take the black box in the ship’s hold to New London, and do not open it.

And then she is gone, and the ship is yours, skeleton crew and all. Good luck, captain.

It’s a fairly cracking beginning really, and I’m hopeful that the rest of it will be as divertingly, endearingly weird as its predecessor. Thus far, the skies aren’t quite as oppressively dark and lonely as the Sunless Sea once was – the art’s rather lovely, honestly, and does a good job suggesting layers of possibly-infinite space despite the two dimensional plane your locomotive-ship actually moves in. But the writing’s been as inventively bizarre as ever, thus far, and we’ve got a lot of new lands to discover. Until we die or go irrevocably mad, of course.

So…more of the same, rather, I suppose. But I’m all right with that.

Onward.

Lemmings rushing to the slaughter

Today’s word of the day: “Malaphor.” This is a combination of “metaphor” and “malapropism,” and appears in such forms as:

  • “It’s not rocket surgery.”
  • “I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it.”
  • The title of this post

…and so on.  I use some of these myself quite deliberately, so I suppose I am not precisely helping to maintain the purity of the language.

This is courtesy of the very-delightful podcast The Allusionist, which I recommend to anyone else who enjoys wordy goodness; host Helen Zaltzman is whimsical and nerdy in proportions I very much enjoy.  Link there goes to the episode I listened to this morning; recommended for a listen if you have a spare twenty minutes or so.

As often seems to happen, nature appears to have suddenly remembered mid-January that it is supposed to be winter, and dumped an alarmingly huge pile of snow on our heads; as I walked to meet everyone for ramen last night the wind was constantly sweeping fistful after fistful of vicious glitter into my face. 

Today: piles everywhere of blinding white, some nearly as tall as I am.  (Miracle of miracles: the TTC ran like a dream this morning, and I secured a seat within a single stop.  I can only guess that perhaps most folk stayed home today.)

I’m not looking forward to the shoveling, but it IS rather lovely to look at…

As it turns out, I’m pretty bad at this.

This “blogging on the regular” thing, that is. Still, I’m going to give it a shot, once again: no merit in abusing myself for not doing it, so let’s set that aside and carry on.

As I type, it’s a frosty late-January afternoon – the laundry is on, there’s cauliflower roasting for tonight’s soup, foccacia bread is rising, and Mark is doing his best to locate some creepy swamp people in Red Dead Redemption 2. Outside, Nature has elected to dump a blinding-white powdery snow on top of everything. Probably I OUGHT to be shoveling it.

I am not shoveling it. Instead I am having a second coffee, though I will likely regret the not-shoveling later on.

The plan is: Two hundred words, most days. About anything. I can do that, surely; I can use up two hundred words writing an email to re-schedule a meeting. Build a routine, and therefore a habit.

I think the first order of business shall be to do a few improvements around here. I’m no graphic designer, but at least I can make sure all the proper plugins are installed and such.

In the meantime, here’s one of the songs that’s been an earworm for me lately:

Reading right now:

Playing right now:


Day 5: Nach Wien

(Above: Catbun enjoying a last look at the goldfish in our room.)

We had one more sight to see today before leaving Prague, since our train wasn’t until the early afternoon: the Museum of Medieval Art, conveniently housed in the convent of the Sisters of St. Agnes, just a short walk from our hotel.

I’ll be a little sad to say goodbye to the Maximilian; we had a lovely stay there even accounting for the mysterious lack of top sheets and indifferent-if-extant air conditioning that haunts Europe generally. Happily, there was safe storage for our luggage, so after our checkout we made our way through the streets one last time and entered the little cloister.

This is still a working convent, I believe, though I did not see anyone wearing religious garb – and what remains of the old convent’s interior is just that – an interior, with very little in the way of furnishings or signifiers to indicate that one room was once much different from another. But the main reason one is there is, of course, the art, so let’s get to that.

It’s medieval art, and from that we can assume a number of common traits: religious subject matter, frequently anonymous artists, a wide and varied range of degrees of mastery when it comes to things like perspective and naturalism.

Oh, and photobombs. Usually by angels. You would seriously be surprised juuuuust how often in medieval art an angel is like “oh hey, guys!” and pops into the picture at a random angle that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with much of what’s going on in the pictures.

Some of the art is legitimately beautiful and contemplative; it’s easy to imagine how in the gray-brown world of the medieval peasant the church may well have been the only place where one was able to see beautiful things. One of the only places, perhaps I should say. There were always the flowers of the field, and the sky after a rain, and the like. But there was a time when almost all of what we think of as visual art was to the greater glory of god, and this collection of it is rather fine.

Some of it I recognized – some Dürer woodcuts, rather flagrant in their apocalyptic-ness. Much of it I did not: altarpieces that folded up, cleverly arranged so as to show an arrangement of saints no matter how they were folded; a wide variety of carved wooden crucifixes and pietas and painted lamentations. Over and over again Mary Magdalene washes Jesus’s feet with her hair; over and over again Christ goes to the Mount of Olives, over and over again, disciples gather at his feet, or in darkened rooms too like a tavern in Bohemia to be strictly accurate.

Some of them are lovely, if somber, scenes. Some of them, to a modern eye, read a bit differently than the artist (probably) originally intended. Matthew looks serious, Mark looks as if he is thinking about lunch, Luke has the wary hesitant half smile of someone not sure if the camera is pointing at him, and John seems entirely Over It, thank you. Gathered at the crucifixion, invention seems to have run out when it came to coming up with different expressions of agony or grief for the disciples to display: here profound sorrow, there a grimace of pain, here something more evocative of digestive distress than emotional angst. A Roman soldier in the wrong armour for his place and time flashes the viewer some distinctive side-eye, as if to say “Can you believe this shit?”

I feel a little disrespectful, admittedly, stating these observations out loud…but honestly, that really IS how it looked. Still, it’s a lovely collection, and aside from the inevitable squad of schoolchildren, a pleasantly un-crowded one for our final Prague sight.

Outside is a little sculpture-garden, including this charming little playhouse that is apparently actually one of the sculptures.

I wonder if anyone is allowed to play on it? The school group was nowhere to be seen at the time, so there was nobody around to test the theory.

By now it was getting on to that time, so we headed back to the Maximilian, where we reclaimed our bags and hopped into a cab headed for the main station. Here we thanked our past selves for that run out to Kutna Hora a couple of days ago: nothing like a little practice with the trains to make finding your platform, etc, a little easier. A short wait later and we climbed aboard a train headed for “Wien Hbf,” aka Vienna (the “Hbf” is the typical abbreviation for “Hauptbahnhof” or main train station.)

We had first-class tickets for this trip – an odd quirk of the Prague-Vienna trains is that you can purchase tickets for them through either the OBB (the Austrian transit authority that actually runs the train as far as I can tell) or CD (the Czech rail system, pronounced something like “Chesky drah-hee”)…and the Czech price can sometimes be cheaper for precisely the same seat. As we also bought well in advance, this meant we could easily swing a spot with a bit more leg room for our 4-hour trek.

One thing I remember from my last trains-in-Europe experience is that for some reason one always expects that the borders will feel more distinct than they are – as if somehow crossing from Italy to Germany will result in the grass being a different green or something, which of course is nonsense. In this case, pretty pastoral countryside continued on both sides of the border, broken up occasionally by assorted small towns and the like. The only really notable differences? Signs swap primary languages from Czech to German (meaning I was no longer QUITE functionally illiterate, hooray) and at the last Czech stop we were slightly astonished to see just about everyone else in the car pile out of the train, which lingered a bit longer than normal. Perhaps the staff have to swap when the border changes?

In any case, it was a very comfortable journey, even with minor hiccups like an in-seat food ordering system that didn’t quite “take” when we put our order in for some sandwiches.

Another thing I remember is how striking the differences between train stations could be, and the transition from Prague’s to Vienna’s was marked by a sudden spike in signage, as well as in available staff who could point you toward whatever it was you were looking for – in our case the 13A bus toward Siebensterngasse, which wound through the streets of the city to an area that gradually began to resemble Queen West.

Vienna was described to me as being “basically Toronto” before this trip, though I’m not entirely sure I agree. For one, there is a notable lack of either the kind of glass and steel condo developments that all of residential downtown seems to be gradually turning into or the skyscrapers that make up most of the “business” downtown. Instead, you have relatively tidy blocks of three-to-five story buildings, many of which seem to subscribe to some sort of unspoken (or perhaps it’s quite spoken, and I just don’t know that) European building code: windows shaped just so, and double-glazed after a fashion, with a casement that opens inward and another that opens outward. Facades to be white, or at least aiming for white; signage neat and prominently displayed in blue and white.

Oh, and for a second difference: unlike Toronto’s, the public transit in Vienna actually works. It’s brisk and efficient, just make very sure you have validated your ticket or else you may be liable for a stiff fine.

We hopped off at Siebensterngasse and looked round for our next lodgings, eventually locating the green “Hotel Kugel” sign near the corner. This is a hotel dating back to the 1800s, and a certain retro quality was present throughout its fittings (thankfully, there’s a modern if tiny elevator.) Our room was every bit as frilly as one could possibly hope for in Vienna:

Alas, still no top sheet, but a very welcome fan. A nice view, too:

Once our bags were dropped off safely, we pondered our next course of action, eventually settling on “let’s go get oriented with our first evening, the way we did in Prague.” We’ve been following the Rick Steves guide for this trip, and a ride around the Ringstrasse tram with an audio tour we downloaded seemed like just the thing.

With a little help from Google Maps we worked out the right general direction and set off. Things you notice almost immediately:

  • Traffic lights are back. I don’t think we saw one of these in Prague anywhere; as Jan noted on our food tour, whatever is coming from the right has right of way, and since everyone knows this, voila, no fuss. (Though I admit to having found it disconcerting.)
  • A number of the traffic lights for pedestrians in Vienna represent same-sex couples, waiting patiently (or perhaps snuggling) side by side when the light is red and strolling gaily across when it’s green, with a little heart between them. They’re extremely cute.
  • The streets here seem to have far fewer windings and tangles than in Prague. One gets the sense that more of the growth here was planned rather than organic – and perhaps it was; one doesn’t have to be more than an indifferent student of history to recognize that Vienna was an imperial capital for a very, very long time.

A few blocks away from the Siebensterngasse stop, the street bumped into a little flight of stairs. Curious to see whether these would allow us to cut straight through a block, as the little arched tunnels in Prague often do, we tried them – and found ourselves going down a much, much longer flight of stairs into something labeling itself prominently “Museumsquartier.” (At a guess, this is because, well, there were some museums and galleries here judging by the signs; notably modern art if these were anything to go by.)

The sort of square at the base of the stairs was clearly setting up for some sort of concert, but almost all of the space not populated by workers and steel constructs was taken up by abstract couches in bright purple, populated by the sort of fashionable young people who make me feel rather drab at the best of times, all eager German conversation.

Beyond this, we emerged onto a street fronted by a grand-looking park dominated by a large sculpture of a woman enthroned who reminded me a little of statuary of Victoria, flanked by some fairly spectacular buildings; as a sign nearby read “M. Theresien-platz” I assumed this must be Maria Theresa. (Future Me: I was right, as the next morning would confirm.)

Past this and round a corner we made it at last to the Ringstrasse – the innermost of Vienna’s ring roads that encircles its densest concentration of sights. Here we had a bit of a disappointment: the tram stops here for several blocks had a sort of blue metal cross-like thing mounted over each of them. “Verlassen,” it said. Lost? No. What the hell was that word? I eventually resorted to Google Translate and had an unpleasant surprise: “Abandoned.”

It seems that a chunk of the ring tram is out of commission at the moment. Lovely. Well, so much for THAT plan. Instead we made for the nearest likely source of dinner – a sort of pub-like restaurant with a propensity for collecting beer themed kitsch in a variety of languages. Well. It’d do; we settled in for a reasonably tasty schnitzel and some kind of meat-filled dumplings with sauerkraut and planned our next move.

This was, as it was getting late, simply to do a stroll around the Opera area, taking in the sights. Vienna in the evening was sedate, but in a charming sort of way and around behind the Opera house was one of those things that’s on the Vienna bingo card:

That’s Cafe Sacher, home of the Sachertorte – a dense chocolate cake with a fruity center layer and a ganache-like icing. You may have heard of it? Anyway, why the hell not – we headed in and placed an order for two of them, with a coffee each.

Or a “melange,” rather – something like a cappuccino. Coffee isn’t served here with milk separately as it is in North America; if you want milk in your coffee it’s best to order it in a preparation that includes some.

The tortes were brought to the table by a waitress in an honest to goodness maid outfit, and came with a little seal of officialness, also in chocolate:

Drier than I was expecting, but tasty all the same.

On that note we headed off to bed. Another long day tomorrow.

Have a nighttime view of Vienna or two while you wait for the next post:

Day 4: Opulence, of several kinds

Our final full day in the Czech Republic dawned bright and cool, and we set out with a plan: to try for a non-hotel breakfast at the recommended-by-the-food-tour-folks Cafe Savoy, over in Prague’s Little Quarter. This would, we knew, demand some careful timing, since the other priority for the morning was to visit Prague Castle, and we hoped to beat some of the numerous tour groups to the punch (as much as possible anyway.)

So it was that we found ourselves outside the cafe several minutes before it opened, in the company of a few early-morning businessfolk and a handful of people who had the look about them of tourists like us. After a few minutes, a young fellow in kitchen whites emerged to set out baskets of pansies and a waiter in a straight-up tuxedo (sans jacket) began seeing to seating for everyone.

Having heard the French toast here was to die for, and knowing we had a long day ahead of us, we ordered the “French breakfast,” which was…massive.

It also cost about as much as a nice dinner out in Toronto, but since literally everything was delicious as well, somehow I found it difficult to mind all that much.

As we prepared to leave for another round of heavy walking, I stopped to visit the WC – I mention this purely because the area outside said WC is a glassed-in overlook that lets you watch the crew in the pastry kitchen do their thing. While the placement is disconcerting, it’s pretty cool to watch; I recommend having a look if anyone reading this one day happens to go there.

Next stop: Prague Castle. Sort of. We got on the tram heading the wrong way, but fortunately this was readily corrected.

Our travel book made quite a point of saying “Be at St. Vitus’s Cathedral at nine,” but it wasn’t until our slightly delayed arrival at about 9:10 or so that we discovered why: guess where all the tour groups start? …Yeah. Dodging a crew of Russians and at least two of those big crews of Chinese travelers, we bought our tickets and dove for the cathedral entrance.

It’s curious how much the cathedral feels like the heart of the castle. Perhaps this is simply because the castle is no longer a “working” castle: the rooms where the business of governing was actually done are largely empty of furnishings now, waking up only briefly as tourists come to observe them before rolling over and going back to sleep. Once upon a time, kings were crowned here, in the chapel of St. Wenceslas, where the saint’s bones are interred.

St. Vitus himself is here as well, or at least he’s got a reliquary.

There’s also the biggest of the bells in the area, affectionately known as “Zikmund.”

We wandered for a while, taking in the interior (at least as much as was possible around the already-getting-dense crowds.). Here, I’ll share a few views:

The castle interior itself is much simpler: the hefty architecture the Middle Ages tended toward when it wanted to get things done. There is at least one hall that must at one time have been very grand, though:

And there is also the infamous window where the Defenestration of Prague took place:

Quite a lot of madness from such an ordinary-looking window.

We also got a chance to explore “Golden Lane,” a tiny little medieval shopping street that has partly been re-populated with little dioramas of the sorts of shops that filled the place at various points in history and partly with actual shops of ponderous touristiness.

Notable, for me at least, were a rendering of the house of a medium (above) who was quite popular before she was taken in by the Gestapo (as with so many stories like this, it Did Not Go Well) and of a local journalist and intense fan of old films who used to run screenings out of his living room.

I’m…legitimately not sure at this point how many stories I have heard on this trip that seem to end with some variation on “…and then they were taken by the Gestapo.” That always seems to represent the ending when it comes; an uncomfortable full-stop that makes even reading the plaque feel awkward. As though the curator were darting me an awkward glance before moving on with their description.

As we started down the very, very steep hill that pointed us back toward the city centre, we took a pause to tour Lobkowicz Palace. It’s a pretty place, though not over the top extravagant, and visiting it is, for those reading this who played D&D with me, a very VanDeen-y affair. The noble family of the Prince(s) of Lobkowicz lived here, or at least they did until they lost everything in WWII. Then they got it all back, then lost it again under the communists, then got it back again. Now they run a museum that from the sound of it helps them keep the lights on and restorers available for the ongoing maintenance of their vast stashes of goods.

Said stash includes the expected accoutrements of nobility: fine porcelain, silver, paintings of pastoral scenes and engravings by Piranesi. One room contains a collection of paintings of dogs, apparently something of a family fixation; another is populated with images of birds composed largely of the feathers of the bird in question.

It seems the princes were avid followers of the arts in general; the collection also includes a Mozart rearrangement of Handel’s “Messiah” with notes in his own hand, and several scores dedicated to a prior Prince of Lobkowicz who was, I shit you not, Beethoven’s patron. (Things I learned: originally Beethoven planned to dedicate his “Eroica” to Napoleon. However, by the time it was finished, Beethoven was sufficiently unimpressed that he re-dedicated it to the then current prince of Lobkowicz, striking out his earlier dedication with enough force to rip holes in the paper.)

There’s also a painting of the famous defenestration – or rather, what happened shortly afterward. It approaches the situation from a rather different point of view than other accounts we’ve heard to date, however: here, the nobles who were flung out of the window have fled to the Lobkowicz palace for protection, and a family ancestress is shielding them from the angry horde.

The museum also includes an audio guide narrated with rather endearing earnestness by the current…is it still prince? I’m not sure…with cameos from his wife and mother in law. It’s a curious mix of enthusiasm for the collection and impressive manifestation of privilege (Though I did enjoy the anecdote about his father riding a bicycle up and down the grand halls.) At least the desire to preserve all this for future generations seems to be in earnest, and in that I wish them all the best.

Our next stop was perhaps more amusing than classy: Speculum Alchemiae, a slightly cheesy little attraction that sprang up after massive flooding unearthed an honest to god alchemist’s lab tucked away under one of the local houses.

Prague has a tendency to flood: in fact, the level of the city has been raised a few times over the years, and on some much-older buildings the effects of this can be seen. At the old town hall, what is now the cellar used to be the street level, and the former windows are still clearly visible; here, the house where once an alchemist plied his trade sits several feet below the more modern buildings nearby.

The flood unearthed a series of tunnels, one of which led directly to the castle, and in these, supposedly, documents were found that clued everyone in as to what the place once was. These same documents were then used to reconstruct the way the lab may have looked, long ago. It’s a little bit cheesy, but amusing to visit, complete with glassworks, distillery and storage space for a variety of herbs. And hey, it has a secret bookcase.

Mark bought a small clay phial of something that purports to be an elixir of youth, though I suspect its primary virtues may have less to do with revitalizing the flesh than with adding a cute trinket to a bookcase.

Here we paused for a break at our hotel’s “honesty bar,” after picking up a bottle of water at the nearest convenience store, and I surprised myself by downing almost a litre of it without really stopping. I get the sense I am really burning a lot of water just walking around; so far it’s been very humid everywhere we go.

Today was planned as food tour day, so there was time for just one more stop on the way: the Mucha museum, wherein I got to see real life versions of many of those cheap prints seen in college dorms everywhere, including mine. Some of those posters from his Paris period are a LOT bigger than you’re thinking if you’ve only ever seen the prints, as well; Sarah Bernhardt in Medea may not have been quite life-sized, but she sure can dominate a wall.

Here also Mark and I made the happy discovery that there IS some art we can agree on after all – both of us find things to love in Mucha. For him, there is the interplay of forms, I love the use of colour and the swirling, delicate lines; we both love his knack for expressions and symbolism. This is especially fun when looking at some of his work that comes in sets – seasons, flowers, etc.

In the back of the museum is a movie detailing more about Mucha’s life – patronage, contracts, his distaste for society and his patriotic dreams. (We did not make it out to see the Slav Epic this time, but one of these days I should really look into it.) They had some works I’d never heard of before there, let alone seen – like the rather haunting “Star.” Like the Slav Epic, this one has political meaning as well – Mucha painted it in response to hearing about the suffering of the common folk of Russia post-Bolsheviks.

On the one hand, I feel a bit shallow for enjoying works of his that were, essentially, just advertisements; I cannot imagine hanging the average ad that appears on the TTC in my living room. Then again, I may possibly have bought a print of one of his works for myself. Blame my affinity for the “The Moon” card, perhaps.

This done, we headed to the meeting point for our food tour…which we almost missed, even so, after first getting the place right, then thinking we’d got it wrong, then hurrying back to the right one again.

Our guide for the evening was Jan, a guy about our own age who’d studied briefly in the USA and done translation work in the land of high finance before eventually deciding he’d had enough and switching to full-time foodie tourism. Everyone ELSE on the tour was young ladies from the States, most from LA, and most “between jobs,” though I am uncertain quite what that means exactly. This made parts of the experience a bit odd; for instance, I have never been in a room, ever, where people lit up as visibly as the LA girls did when he mentioned the Kardashians.

Ah well. All of us were there because we liked food, at least, so we had that in common. (And here, guys, I am going to do that thing I roll my eyes at people a bit for doing when they do it in restaurants in Canada…I photographed my food so I could share with you. Those of you this will irritate, feel free to skim over this bit.)

Here are sort of the primary take-aways from the entire affair: The Czechs are trying to re-establish a sort of Czech food identity after Communism. Communist life in the Czech Republic was, for most people, more boring than horrific according to Jan. Certainly the regime did a number on food, standardizing recipes down to the weight of ingredients to be used for each dish. Recipes served lots of people at once (the example he showed us served 100) and were the same pretty much everywhere – so if you didn’t like the bread (or whatever) at one place there was very little point in going anywhere else. Restaurants came in four “levels”; I’m not sure if there was much difference between the recipes available at a level 1 vs a level 4, but the part of me that loves going out to St. Lawrence or wherever finds the entire idea just soul-destroying.

Here’s the other important bit, though: as we all know, food is often about comfort for a lot of us. What do we crave when we want comfort? Food we remember from childhood. And what was childhood if you’re Czech and were born within living memory of, say, 1989? That bland gray age of Communist standardization.

This, plus the legitimate desire to create new food that’s still recognizably Czech, results in an interesting mishmash of nostalgia and enthusiasm, springing forth from kitchens staffed mainly by young Czechs. “Notice how young everyone is at all of the places we go,” he commented – and he was absolutely right.

Our first stop was a place called Mysak, where Jan’s mother had taken him as a child were he to get unusually good marks at the end of a term. This was an example of a place that had been family-run for ages and doggedly kept open throughout communism, only for the owner to pass away without anyone to pass the business to shortly after communism fell. A new generation’s picked it up, however, and it is once again a popular, slightly upscale spot. Here we had a petite open-faced sandwich topped with shrimp – an affluent indulgence in a landlocked country – and a kind of cream-filled glazed cruller called a “venecek” that I think I would have eaten my body weight in given the opportunity:

Here we paused for a bit of chat about pricing. There comes a point for everyone, it seems, where the idea of “what something should cost” becomes fixed in one’s mind. Perhaps about fifty or so. In the Czech Republic, this means that for many, “what food should cost” is “what food cost under communism,” so a lot of older Czechs especially don’t visit places like this because the food seems too expensive. There is certainly a kind of Overton window of costs where an amount of money becomes “a lot” to you; for me that’s about 100 dollars, but for Mark it’s rather higher. I wonder how much things like that change within one’s lifetime? I know $20 was once “a lot” to me, and then $50…Who knows, I suppose.

There is no “bank of mom and dad” in the Czech Republic, either: here, the generational wealth gap exists in the inverse of North America. At home, it’s older generations that tend to have money; here, the reverse. Sometimes this means that these older folks will even be resistant to fixing up a crumbling apartment block because doing so will raise rents: there are some buildings where younger tenants are literally waiting for older ones to die in order to conduct repairs.

On our way to the next stop, we poked our heads in at the main post office for Prague. They are very very serious about not taking photographs in there, so I don’t have any unfortunately, but it’s a surprisingly pretty building. It’s also open 24/7, and is the nexus for quite a few bits of Czech bureaucracy. (Another thing I learned today: Everyone has a mailing address here, even the homeless folks – their messages will just go to the post office proper and it’s their responsibility to check them.)

Stop number 2 of our tour was Kantyna, “the palace of meat,” a former Masonic temple turned fancy butcher shop-slash-eatery where you can order meat by weight and have it brought to you. This place is crazy busy, and a number of tables had reservations marked with numbered bones, but the tour group we were with has a special arrangement whereby sometimes they will set up a card table for those who’ve been on the tour. Appropriately to the setting they brought out a tray of pulled pork, dry-aged sausages, latkes fried in pork fat, and steak tartare.

The latter one eats by first vigorously rubbing the toasted bread with a cut clove of garlic; the garlic was pleasingly spicy, much more so than in Canada. I don’t know what causes that, but I wish I could have some to cook with at home!

We also had a dark lager called “Kozel” here. This is the gateway beer in this part of the world, apparently; the lighter stuff that teenaged girls drink. (Still not really my jam, but I figured if there was ever a “when in Rome” sort of occasion this was it.)

On our way to our next stop we learned another interesting factoid: you know that Jewish quarter we visited? There are still some Jews in Prague, but not many: only 1500 or so officially registered, most over 55. This came up because the former Jewish quarter was home to stop number three: Lokal, a small chain with just a few locations that is riffing on the classic Czech pub.

These are trading on the aforementioned communist nostalgia very hard, naturally, which means that walking into one is a bit like walking into the legion hall at first glance: comfortable if spartan-looking seating, a long bar, painted stencilwork on the wallpaper. The “riffing on” element becomes more apparent when you look more closely at the walls: wood paneling that looks very 70s has been gouged with graffiti-like carvings that are lit from behind. A decorative feature, not defacements.

This is because, as we learned on sitting down, the local pub is a place where you go to do two things, mainly: drink, and talk to your friends, largely to complain about all the things in your life that make you crazy. So there’s no music being played (a difference from Canadian pubs I didn’t register at first), and the food on offer is mostly of the “stuff you serve with beer” variety.

Czechs drink a lot of beer. A LOT. Jan showed us a typical beer-ordering card, a long strip with many, many little outlines of mugs of beer on it. When the waitress sees you’re empty, or running low, she’ll come by with another, marking off one of the outlines, unless and until you explicitly say “no more.” At the end of the night you cash out – a procedure Jan referred to as “Czech dim sum.”

How many beers on the average do Czechs have this way? Eight or nine a night, easily.

We had just the one, this time a Pilsner Urquell lager that came from a giant tank under the bar. There are about six of these active in any pub at a given time, and they will go through three tanks in a night, easily. When refill time comes, a tanker truck full of beer pulls up to the pub and fills ’em up, gas station style.

…What do you eat with all that beer? Well, fried cheese is popular; this is served with tartar sauce (?) and tastes about as awesome as fried cheese generally does. There was also a Hungarian-style goulash, and chicken schnitzel served with a warm, vinegary potato salad.

Here we also learned something that might possibly explain why Prague was so much less crowded than I had anticipated: apparently the Czechs love going to the cottage on holiday weekends as much as Canadians do, so a goodly chunk of the city may have been out for a time.

Next stop, a second meat-themed spot, Nase Maso, for a sample of their meatloaf sandwich.

About this, I cannot say much except that it was very tasty, and they have provided us with the recipe, which I may try one of these days when I have people over. We did learn an interesting factoid about the place, though: there is a wine bar nearby, and you can apparently have the butcher shop grill you a steak and bring it over. (I must confess I rather like the idea of summoning a steak like this, though I didn’t get the chance to test drive it. Ah well. On a future trip perhaps.

Onward, again – and outward in this case, to the neighbourhood of Kalin well outside the touristy zones of the city; rough-but-gentrifying, perhaps the closest Torontonian analogue would be the Junction. Here, tech companies have settled in, and a little crop of restaurants trying out new things have sprung up to serve them. As we headed to our first stop here, we passed a lengthy queue; investigation revealed that playing that night was Bobby McFerrin. (There’s a name I haven’t thought of in a while…)

Next stop, Eska, a trendy-looking spot where we were seated “at the chef’s table,” near the kitchen. Here we were treated first to a gin and tonic crafted with an artisanal gin by a local, along with a seriously adorable little amuse-bouche crafted with radish slices and edible flowers:

I love the water-lily look. This was followed by a modern riff on what is apparently a popular Czech campfire dish: “ash potatoes,” which as the name suggests are potatoes tossed into the campfire ashes to roast. Ours were served a bit more elaborately than that, though:

This was a kind of deconstructed baked-potato affair, and it was seriously delicious. As we waited for our next course, we watched the kitchen doing its thing. (Jan commented “They say there are three things you can watch forever: fire, the sea, and other people working.”)

Perhaps he’s right about that; it was weirdly gratifying to watch the kitchen staff as they boiled, roasted, plated…

The next course was mushroom-oriented: a sort of fermented wheat berry risotto-like substance rich with mushroom flavours.

The Czechs apparently not only eat a lot of mushrooms but forage for them regularly as well; all Czech students receive some basic mushroom education in school, and many towns have a sort of mushroom assistance agency that will help you identify the mushrooms you’ve made it back with. These are staffed by “Unabomber weirdo types,” as he put it, but they’re quite knowledgeable, and foraging can be a way to make some extra cash if you know what you’re doing.

Above: “pre-dessert,” a little nibble before we headed out. Whee!

Our final stop for the evening was the Krystal bistro for a traditional Czech dessert: plum dumplings with butter, poppy seeds, and stewed plums, paired with another local artisanal spirit: a walnut brandy. Both dumpling and brandy were lovely: warm and comforting, buttery, fruity density and woody acidity together.

At the end of the evening Jan had some additional gifts to see us off: tram tickets back to the old town, and a Koh-I-Noor pencil for everyone. These are apparently a Czech innovation, too. File that under things I didn’t know, certainly…

By this time we were so full we were more than happy to just head back to the hotel and collapse for the night, thank you. Anyone thinking of going to Prague who likes food, though: go do this. It was a great time, it was delicious, and I’ll be giving them some good internet ratings when I get back to Toronto.

Tomorrow: we head to Vienna.

Good night, Prague. It’s been fun!

(Please enjoy Mark with this painting of chickens.)

Day 3: Bones and silver in Bohemia

Note: I am absolutely still writing these, but as may already be apparent we have been crazy busy. Will get them up as time permits!

Day three of our trip saw us heading outside of Prague, to the rural city of Kutna Hora. This meant, of course, sorting out how to use the trains.

If you’re European I think you are likely born with a few extra points in the “Use Train” skill; as a North American I had to work a bit to dredge up the remnants of my backpacking knowledge. Right. Train number, car number, seat number. Even so, Prague’s main train station can be overwhelming. There’s a riot of…everything going on: crowds of people with giant suitcases, a somewhat puzzling-to-outsiders numbering system for the platforms that takes into account north or south platforms, different ticket windows for domestic vs international trains. Still, fortunately for us the language of buying tickets is fairly universal: two, Kutna Hora, return. Slip of paper in hand, we headed for the departures board and thence to the platform…

Where there were a LOT of people waiting. Perhaps it is because Kutna Hora is just that popular, or perhaps it was because it happened to be The Holiday Variously Known as V-E day or “Victory Day” or (as was written on some signs in the Czech Republic) “Liberation Day.” Be that as it may, we only barely scored a seat on the train before it rolled out into the Czech countryside.

The city gave way to green countryside of the sort I have been watching so often in Mark’s playthrough of Kingdom Come, and the stations grew progressively smaller and…well, not dingier precisely. Careworn, perhaps, with weary-looking painted plaster walls encrusted thickly with graffiti.

Kutna Hora’s main station has two platforms, brown painted plaster, and, like Prague’s main station, a startling lack of staff. From there it was a matter of transferring to a tiny yellow train that lumbered along gently to our first stop of the day.

Kutna Hora is best known for two things: silver mining (the translation of the town’s name was presented to us at least once as “to mine the mountain”) and the Sedlec Ossuary, which you might already know as “The Bone Church.”

This tiny chapel had its cemetery consecrated with earth from the holy land, once upon a time – a desirable state of affairs if you are religious and it’s the Middle Ages. So popular was this place for burials that they ran very quickly out of room…and found themselves having to disinter old corpses to make way for new ones.

What to do with all those bones? I’m not sure who it was that said “I know! Let’s stack them up into impressive pyramids, hang them on all the available wall space we’ve got, and build us a memento mori that people who use the word “Goths” to describe themselves centuries from now will daydream about visiting!”

But here we are. It’s not a BIG ossuary – you can tour the whole in perhaps twenty minutes – but it’s definitely something.

It’s clearly popular with more than just the Goth set, too: the place was already pretty mobbed when we arrived, packed with assorted Russians, Germans, a handful of North American folks and at least one bus’s worth of Chinese tourists. I think the bit I liked best is this little detail from the crest of the local lord depicted here; a skull decked out in the style of an Ottoman Turk would be getting its eyes pecked out, if it had any, by a raven.

From there we had to find a place to catch a local bus a bit further in to the city centre. After some blundering about looking for the station (and making the discovery that English is less common outside Prague), we found ourselves waiting in the company of a very, very Goth-looking couple who had apparently hired a local guide for the day. The woman had jet-black dreads and a fairly epic Medusa tattoo; we saw the two of them around quite regularly for the rest of the day.

As we rode the bus, idly surveying the landscape of what looked like some of those little Communist-era apartments (painted in multicoloured plaster, like Prague, but far less romantic-looking), we happened to look right and see…an elephant.

Seriously. Real live elephant, just hanging out munching on some tree branches. A handful of people looking on as if to say “what the fuck do we do about this?” (A reasonable response really.)

As Mark and I swapped “WTF?” looks of our own, the local fellow guiding the Goths mentioned that the elephant was apparently an escapee from a circus that had come to town of late. Nobody was sure what to DO about it. (I wondered if he was having them on…but there WERE posters for a circus with recent dates.)

Hopping off the bus, it was time to walk downhill to St. Barbara’s Church. Remember how I said the name of the town is suggestive of mountains? I MEAN it about “downhill.” Imagine a town paved with mostly medieval cobbles (the hard rounded kind), pitched at about a 45 degree or more angle, and there you have it. The notion of cycling there is frankly terrifying.

St. Barbara’s is as Gothic as the ossuary, though more in the architecture sense than fans of, say, The Crow. Once upon a time, you see, this little town was not just wealthy but fantastically so; its silver mines were part of the Bohemian infrastructure that provided silver to most of Europe for a surprisingly long time. Professionals in coin minting were imported from Italy; the ruler of the land paid regular visits, and according to the locals this little place was once a contender for capital city of the region.

Why am I telling you all this now? Because this church was to be a no expenses spared showpiece, and you can kind of tell. Here, have a look:

This fellow is wearing what we would shortly learn is a miner’s uniform – sensible, as St. Barbara is patron of miners:

As it was lunchtime by now, we headed to a little pub-like spot on a public square, where we had a light lunch of “garlic soup with ham and cheese” and a lemonade we were relieved to find was made with lemons. (Previous experience had suggested that “lemonade” in Prague is more of a…family of beverages that might include all sorts of fruit.)

Then it was time to learn a bit more about where all this silver came from.

Silver mining in the Middle Ages was a scary business. Miners would crawl out of bed at a terrifyingly early hour to make their way down to the mine for their eight-hour shifts. To do this they would don a kind of white robe with a hood along with some sturdy leather apron-type garment that could be used to (for instance) slide down chutes deeper into the mine. Grab a tallow lamp and you’re all set to crawl in and set to…literally: exploratory passages were very low to the ground, to save the bother of mining out all that unnecessary stone. Miners worked in the near-dark, in damp tunnels, hunting for silver ore that was nearly black in its unrefined state; in the absence of visual cues they learned to rely on the feel of stone under hammers and picks, or on the smell of the dust. Smell something like garlic? You might be in luck! A complex system of code knocks helped them communicate with one another.

Miners had to be young unmarried men, and there is a great reason for that: the job was horrifically dangerous, and they lost something on the order of five miners per day.

Per day. Think about that for a second.

It was during our pre-mine talk with our guide Luci that we heard another possible origin of the town’s name, as well: a saint had a dream here once about some silver rods, and from these the town gets its name.

Poetic, but less likely, perhaps.

We headed down into the mines and got to hear a bit more about why they’re so dangerous: gases given off from wood as it rots underground, arsenic leaching from the stone into the water and poisoning everyone; losing your light and getting lost, tunnel collapses…et cetera. All in all I’m cool with my desk job, thanks.

As part of the tour we get to don the white miners’ robes ourselves (with modern helmets, fortunately) and squeeze into a tiny area of the mines. And I mean “turn sideways and squish through as tightly as possible” tiny. Here’s Mark in his outfit:

And here are some representative shots of the tunnels:

The mines are surprisingly wet; in at least one place you can shine the light from your helmet down to see water in a deeper shaft. How deep do they go? I’m not sure, but apparently nobody’s all that certain how many miles of tunnel exist just now. It was certainly interesting but overall…yeah, I am happy to be working above ground.

We also toured the above ground museum of silver with a lady who apologized profusely for her English, as she hadn’t used it in some 40 years (!). This bit of the tour I’ll just skim, as it was mainly collections of artifacts from the town accompanied by descriptions of how daily life was: medieval history fans, you probably already know all you need to know about this. I did enjoy the chest that locked and unlocked twelve locks at once using a single key:

For good measure, the real keyhole isn’t the visible one on the front, either.

The silver museum also has a temporary exhibit space. On right now: gingerbread.

I know, I know, but it IS some impressive gingerbread:

After this we took a stroll downhill to see the rest of Kutna Hora. It has some pretty impressive drinking fountain infrastructure:

This would have been quite necessary at the time it was built due to the other major side effect of the mining: turning the land around the town into an arsenic-blighted hellscape. Today the land around Kutna Hora is pretty pleasant and green, but they would have chopped down all the local trees either for wood or for charcoal, and for years had to have both wood AND water shipped in. Ugh.

Eventually we made our way down to the little pink train station to catch the train back to Prague. Here there was a bit of an unpleasant surprise: apparently it’s totally possible to end up standing the entire way to your destination if you haven’t reserved a seat. (Pro tip for anyone trying this in future.)

Still, there was nothing for it – and so, feet burning rather fiercely by now after a day’s hard haul over rough cobble at a steep angle, we rode. A woman carrying a bright pink Hello Kitty bag wandered the aisles the entire trip, I assume watching for a space to open up. A youngish guy who looked as though he could bench-press me checked his phone, the outline of a set of brass knuckles alarmingly plain through his jeans. Business folk checked emails and kicked off high heeled shoes as far as public decency would seem to permit. Countryside directly out of Kingdom Come eventually gave way to suburbs, and then to office towers, and then to Prague.

We weren’t quite done with the day yet, though: hopping onto the somewhat-grungy-but-still-pretty-effective metro, we made our way to the evening’s planned entertainment: the National Marionette Theatre’s production of Don Giovanni. (The Czechs apparently have an honourable tradition of puppetry, and we’ve heard that this was a superior choice to some of the “black light” theatre shows.)

The theatre is a cute little Art Deco-ish affair, and while I can’t show you photos of the performance (here’s a review with representative examples) it was actually quite entertaining in a whimsical sort of way. The puppets don’t do any singing – it’s a recording – but that’s fine, as the real star here is the surprising physicality of the puppeteers’ performance.

Yes, the characters on stage are puppets; but the show really leans in to that, with charming results. The show’s been cut significantly, of course, and if you don’t speak Italian I would advise reading the plot on Wikipedia or something beforehand so you will have at least a vague clue what’s going on. It’s also threaded through with wry and often dark nonverbal humor; when a puppet character “dies” the puppeteer sags over the rail as if their own strings have been cut, and a backdrop stubbornly refuses to unfurl, stalling the opening of a scene.

I think I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of Mozart as the maestro. He’s controlled from below, unlike the other puppets, but his gestures are weirdly expressive and play nicely into what’s going on onstage. (And, of course, he premiered this show in Prague, so it’s appropriate.) At one point in the show he seemingly gets so frustrated by the other puppets’ antics that he just gets good and drunk and passes out, while the rest of the cast tries to work around his snoring form.

Eventually Giovanni gets hauled off to hell, the puppeteers have some amusing reactions to the overlong concluding sequence, and the audience files out.

In our case this was in search of a late dinner. This turned out to be some serviceable if unexceptional Czech food at a place Mark described as “what happens when The Witcher collides with a TGI Friday’s.” There was a tableful of blonde ladies eating fried cheese, and a very excited Japanese couple. Goulash for me, roast duck for Mark, with some more of those big bread dumplings. Beer lovers in the audience may wish to note that the beer was literally cheaper than the water. By, like, ten crowns.

This done, we headed back to the hotel to collapse, orienting ourselves via the House of Death, but not before spotting some more golem memorabilia on the way. (I think Mark has the pictures of that, sadly.)

An old travel diary, day 13: Cottage/Industry

This morning we bade farewell to Fairbank House over a breakfast of pancakes and set out for our final lodgings in Callendar.  Before that, however, we decided to do something a bit different and follow up on some signs we’d been seeing as we drove around Speyside yesterday for the “Knocando Woollen Mill.”  We’ve already tried to see woollens being handmade during our hunt for Harris Tweed on the Isles and failed due to poor timing – so why not investigate a different type of woolcraft here?
The mill’s undergone a recent renovation thanks to some money from the EU (I wonder what happens to that sort of thing now?), and to reach it you descend via one of those now-familiar tiny one-lane roads with passing places into a little sheltered valley with a river running alongside, bright and merry in the morning sunshine.  The greenery eventually parted, directing us to a spot where we could leave our car; hopping out, we ambled down a little gravelled path until, eventually, we reached a scene straight out of a Thomas Kinkade painting by way of a fantasy novel.
A cluster of little buildings in the usual white stucco, cheery red doors bright and welcoming in the sunshine, surrounded a gorgeous little garden of flowers in a rainbow of colors.  The gravelled path led in a neat loop past a cafe (it seems to be in the rules that all Scottish attractions include a cafe), something labeled “The Old Cottage” and “The Old Shop,” and a bigger building that was obviously the mill itself.  A black-painted waterwheel turned sedately, fed by a lede from the river nearby.
Pastoral as hell, in other words.
Thoroughly charmed, we made our way over to the mill to investigate; a sign out front explained that today they were spinning and carding natural brown Shetland wool and encouraged us to come inside for a look – so this we did.
I don’t know how much experience you have with industrial settings (I am tempted to add “dear reader” here, like a Victorian writer), but when I go into one I generally expect…I don’t know, noise and grit and a general atmosphere of misery.  Not so much, here.  There was a quiet rumble of machinery, and a young bearded fellow piling armfuls of rough nubs of brown wool into a hopper for the first of two carding machines, great hulking things with rotating barrels lined all round with metal wires like very fine-bristled hairbrushes, combing the fibers straight and smooth and (importantly) largely parallel.  On the other end a wide, felted band of rough wool was carried along a cloth belt to a second machine, where it was gently laid and layered at 90 degrees to the fibers’ current orientation as though someone were piping out icing the color of milky coffee.
The second machine, tended by a young lady in Doc Martens and a T-shirt for a band I couldn’t readily identify but was probably (at a guess) punk, passed the wool through a second series of wiry rollers and out again as a much narrower band of unspun wool, wound onto a series of bobbins that would then be loaded, about thirty at a time, into the pretty fast spinning machines that lined one side of the workroom.  These weren’t in operation at the moment, but a later video would demonstrate how they worked, pulling the yarn out…and twisting…and winding the lot into spools of thread that could then go to the looms.
The looms also weren’t running this morning, but they look…pretty much exactly the way looms you’ve seen in movies look, and function about the same as well: the warp threads are tied in by hand, carefully threaded through a headache-inducing tangle of combs with little “eyes” in the wires in accordance with the pattern selected for weaving.  Given that much of what the mill produces is tweed of various sorts, which often has a fairly delicate pattern with just a few threads of a contrast color here and there, I’d be pretty worried about mis-threading…but then I guess I haven’t had hours on hours of practice, either.  Once that’s all done, the magic happens: the looms fire shuttles of wool back and forth to actually weave the  pattern, slowly producing a bolt of pretty cloth.
If the cloth in question is to be used for a purpose like, say, upholstery, then the process is finished.  If it’s to be used for something soft, however, like a scarf or pillows, then the final machine in the mill comes into play.  This raises a “nap” on the fabric for a softer hand by passing the fabric gently through two more great big rollers.  Instead of metal wires, however, these are lined with the natural equivalent: the heads of burdock plants, which are heavily encrusted with little “hooks” that catch at the fibers and raise a warm, fluffy halo.
The entire process takes place in pretty much the one old building, though a more contemporary facility tucked in behind the mill appears to house some sort of experimental turf: it wasn’t open to the public, but peeking in through the glass windows showed a workshop where several folk were busily doing mysterious things with colored threads.
The accompanying exhibition told us a bit more about the mill and environs.  Once, a long time ago, the entire valley would have been covered in little mills like this one, which was built in the 1700s, but only the mill at Knockando remains in operation today.  (The mill-wheel is largely cosmetic, sadly, though it does generate a little power.) Other mills were lost to combinations of various factors: land takeover as part of “the clearances,” economic depression, or in many cases a huge and devastating flood.
This one was perilously close to going under as well after its long neglect, but was rescued from loss and decay by one of our tribe: a young social sciences student who felt strongly that the mill was part of local heritage and deserved to be maintained.  He did not, sadly, know anything about the actual process, but luckily this mill had run for a long time and there was still at least one old-timer around to teach him the ins and outs.  So it is that – again thanks to that EU money – the Knockando wool mill is still up and running, producing mainly small “boutique” runs of specialty tartans and tweeds, often in collaboration with other organizations.  (In the shop there were a variety of these patterns on display and for sale, including the “Knockando” tartan that reflects the design of one of the mill’s windows – a large central pane surrounded by smaller ones – and a design produced in collaboration with a Swedish organization in bright, vivid colors.
I confess to a moment of weakness; I picked up a scarf in a bright, colorful plaid of the “mini moorland” pattern.  It’ll go with just about any color of coat I can think of, and in any event it feels kind of cool to support a business like this one.  I wasn’t alone, either; as we roamed the grounds a fellow visitor was carefully arranging her own purchase (a larger shawl) for an Instagram-ready photograph among the garden’s flowers, the pinks and yellows and blues of the blossoms matching exactly the threads shooting through the earthy grayish-green of the background.
There’s something about visiting a place that is just so thoroughly…pleasant that has a buoying effect; this was perhaps lucky, for as the road brought us up and out of the green, rolling hills of Speyside the sky began to cloud over, and we soon found ourselves driving through the kind of light but steady rain that’s been with us at least once a day since our arrival.
And so, we drove for a time.  The number of sheep gradually became less (though of course they did not disappear entirely); the rockiness of the countryside further abated as we approached the border with the lowlands.  Not completely, though: our next destination, Callander, sits right at the jumping-off point for quite a bit of outdoor activity, much of it in the mountains of the Grampians or the Trossachs.
A search for a visitor-information centre brought us to a stop none of us had anticipated and that few of us were entirely certain what to make of: The House of Bruar.
That sounds grand, and in a sense it is, but it’s not, as you might think, a stately home. It’s a store, a huge and rather elaborate one, advertising itself as the paragon of Scottish country stores.  From this I glean that the Scots and I define that phrase a bit differently.  When I hear “country store,” I think of the tiny Meador Grocery down the road from my grandfather’s farm, with the plywood-walled addition that housed its banks of flattened videos and the Friday night fish fry.  This?  This was something of an entirely different species.
To give you some idea of what we were dealing with, we entered via the “Menswear Hall,” which had a “Cashmere and Knitwear Hall” below that.  From there it was an easy walk to the “Country Living” hall – a sprawling two floors of linens, kitchenware, and decor with antlers – and thence to the wing containing the restaurant, food hall, ladies’ wear hall (with annex for leather and furs) and children’s wear hall…all of it forming a great U around a central glass-roofed courtyard.
Inside, the various “halls” were crammed to the gills with frighteningly posh goods: gourmet food, cashmere sweaters on sale at £149 (down from £200!), decor liberally embellished with antlers, hip flasks that cost upwards of £130, crystal bowls etched with patterns of red squirrels that I was afraid to breathe in the general direction of, let alone pick up to look at the price…
In other words, it was Bass Pro by way of the Hamptons.
Somewhere in Scotland there are people who think nothing of visiting this place and dropping the equivalent of thousands of Canadian dollars on a tweed suit, or hundreds of dollars on a picnic hamper of gourmet bits and bobs.  Somewhere in Scotland there are people for whom “the country” means genteel pursuits like riding and cricket and boating and golf; for whom this is the equivalent of stopping to gear up before going to the cottage for the weekend.  Somewhere in Scotland there are people who are as far removed from the idea I have of “the country” as I am from the surface of Mars.
The masses.  The classes.
The one percent.  Or, from certain points of view, the problem.
Hardly anyone there was OF “the classes,” mind you.  I suppose the rest of the folk visit to shop aspirationally, treat themselves, or perhaps just daydream about what it might be like to be part of the problem in their own right.
We did find the visitor information centre, in the end; the young man there pointed out a couple of the locations on our historic Scotland passes that he’d been to.  The first of these, Stanley Mills, was en route to our destination for the evening, so we headed there.
At first, despite the signage, we thought we’d made a mistake.  Oh, the buildings looked about right – tall stony edifices that made a rough square, a street lopping off one side of it into a chunk of freestanding…offices, from the look of what we could see through the windows.  Certainly not open to the public – though there was a nearby power station with an obvious “here’s how this power station operated a hundred years ago” placard out front, so we had to be close.
Eventually, we made our way to one end of the “u” portion of the square, where another sign finally directed us to the right point of entry.  The staffer on duty explained a lot by saying that only part of the mills were retained as a historic site; one side of the “u” was condos, while the freestanding chunk was indeed office space, rented out by the Trust.
All righty then: onward, in any event.
The Stanley Mills were named, as one might already be thinking, for a Lord Stanley; when industrialization became a Thing in the 1800s, he felt that getting on that particular bandwagon might be a good plan, and there was a burgeoning market for cotton in its various forms, so he bought up some used equipment from down in England and then gave all the crofters on his land an offer: Come work at the mill!  Better housing and jobs for everyone!
Wee problem with this statement: if you didn’t want to take him up on the offer, you couldn’t just carry on working the land if you wanted to.  He had other plans for that land, thanks, and if you weren’t going to join the mill and contribute…well, then, kindly bugger off, you useless gits.
Second wee problem with this statement: while the housing almost certainly was better, whether the jobs were better was…debatable, and that’s even if there was one for you.  The mills only rarely hired men, you see.  Why do that when you could pay women so much less, and children even less than that?
They were the sort of working conditions that brought us Upton Sinclair and Karl Marx, too: absurdly long hours, low wages, and horrifically dangerous conditions.  The machines were noisy, and most workers had hearing damage; small children had to scurry under machines to clean out fibers and could easily lose fingers or hands in the process.  A fine dust of cotton detritus filled the air constantly, giving many workers a terrible cough that lingered, perhaps for the rest of their lives – and worse, it was highly flammable; a single spark could set a huge area alight in an instant (needless to say, the fire escape protocols weren’t well-developed, either.)
Still, production was steady (with the exception of a closure from about, oh, 1860-1865…some sort of trouble or other in the States) and eventually the mill secured its future – for a time – by developing a technique for producing strips of linen that were used in cigarette factories to help form the cigarettes before rolling; this was a closely guarded secret, and the women (always women) in that part of the factory got to work in an area with blacked-out windows.   Later came work crafting heavier goods – for example belts of heavy cotton, soaked in tar, that would run heavy machinery and power things like tanks during the war.
In the end it was synthetic fibers that caused the mill to shut down – though not at the time or for the reasons you might think.  Hoping to capitalize on the vogue for acrylics, the mill switched its machinery to accommodate this new wonder fiber…but then, when cotton once again became popular in the 80s, the mill could no longer afford to switch back to supporting its earlier product.
That’s right.  The place ran right up into the 80s before finally shutting down.
The presentation was excellent, I’ve got to say.  Lots of interactive presentations for kids (and playful/curious adults) to play with, including a simulation of the “let’s get the cotton fibers out of the machines without losing a finger!” game that those long-ago kids had to play and some really nicely-done demonstrations of the physics of the machinery – and the waterwheels and turbines that gave the mill its power before gas and electricity came along.
But it does make for an unintentionally compelling (and slightly disturbing) contrast to the morning’s exploration at Knockando.  One of these mills is (now) essentially a small artisanal operation; the other is a pretty bleak, if interesting, reminder of how little most of us appreciate where the things we wear and eat and decorate our homes come from.  Certainly I doubt that those someones who shop at the House of Bruar on their way to a weekend’s blithe enjoyment of rural pursuits spend much time thinking about it.
Do the people in the lofts ever think much of the suffering that went on in the buildings where they lived once?  Should they?  Perhaps sites, like people, can be redeemed over time?  Can happy lives lived in a place make easier its fit in the world around it, even if they cannot erase its history?
As we headed out to Callander for the evening I spent some time looking at my hands.  Fair, soft skin, neatly-trimmed nails, if a bit uneven in length.  By the standards of those mill workers in 1850, a high-born lady’s hands.  But it wouldn’t be one’s hands that mark one out as of “the classes” today, would it?  Our mill workers now are waitresses working for below minimum wage, call-centre employees paid by the call and desperate to rack up as many as they can. I may not lose a finger in a machine, but do some of us not bear other scars, less visible?
Perhaps grimmer thoughts than are really appropriate for a holiday.
Our lodging for the evening was the Abbotsford Lodge in Callander.  While I don’t think any of us really knew quite what to expect, I feel pretty confident that nobody was expecting what we got: a large house with multiple levels, an unusual fusion of European and Asian/Indian-style decor…and sort of creepily-good service throughout.  Our landlord spotted us hanging around in the lounge to plan our next move and offered everyone a complimentary dram of whiskey; the ensuing conversation informed us that he was an ex-oil man who’d met his wife in Kazakhstan and eventually settled in to run a guest house because it involved less trekking around to very very dangerous places.  (This explained his wife’s very unusual accent: someone whose first language wasn’t English that learns it from a Scot results in some very curious pronunciations.)
He also, by extension, revealed himself to be a pretty canny sort of fellow; I believe the drink was at least partly an excuse to investigate how put off we’d be on the idea of coming to Scotland thanks to Brexit (not that much) and partly a means of securing that all-important positive TripAdvisor review.  (I never use TripAdvisor at home, but here it seems to be by far the preferred Yelp-equivalent.)
On his recommendation we headed to a local pub called the Crown Inn for some venison casserole (in my case, anyway) and a chance to watch some of the football match between Wales and Portugal.  The pub proved to be more of a family restaurant than a proper pub, and the Welsh lost, to everyone’s sorrow.  Everyone loves an underdog, no?  And Portugal wins so much at football already!
Ah well.  They fought well in any case (though Mark still very much prefers baseball.)
More tomorrow.

An old travel diary, day 12: On the whiskey trail

Rolled out of bed this morning to find a really lovely breakfast going on downstairs; this particular B&B (a Fairbank House, in Dufftown) has it going on in terms of amenities. If only my allergies, or cold, or whatever it is, would settle!  I don’t seem to have gotten over my cold, or whatever it is that hit me so hard in Skye.
However, be that as it may.  There’s much to relate today – another busy day.
We opened at Balvenie Castle, quite near our lodgings.  This is another ruined castle, one originally known as Mortlach, and it took just a few minutes to roam the grounds and snap a few photographs of the walls.
From there we set out for Elgin, a medieval-era town featuring a dramatic cathedral as one of its centrepieces.  Doubtless it was even more impressive when it was whole; in the 1700s the central tower (a relatively recent renovation) collapsed (one Easter Sunday…hmm…) and people simply…stopped using the place for worship.  Perhaps somewhat understandable, given that prior to the collapse it was primarily used by the clergy – bishops and canons and so on.  A parish church this definitely was not.
What’s most interesting about visiting the cathedral today is the new (only just opened at Easter!) exhibition that lets you get up close and personal with the masons who built it, after a fashion.  These guys were responsible for carving…well, everything; every fragment of column and window frame, every ceiling boss and arch.  They were paid by the stone, and a careless slip of the chisel could mean the cost of the stone came out of their salaries – so if you look closely, you can see not only the marks designed to help align the stones, but also tiny marks indicating which mason was responsible, usually tiny patterns of lines (I’m not sure how literate the average mason would have been, but I’m guessing not very.)
Of course, when the cathedral collapsed, much of their art was lost – or cannibalized for other purposes – but the exhibition is nevertheless full of headless satyrs and other grotesqueries, Green Men, symbolic beasts like hares and lions, and faces whose wild expressiveness is at odds with the vogue for Grecian-styled serenity.  There’s even a ceiling boss that, if viewed from the right angle, reveals itself as being held by a crouching figure…who is completely anatomically correct.  Some sort of token of sin?  An in-joke by a mason who knew it’d never be seen?  Hard to say.
Incidentally, on the way to the cathedral our quest for directions led us by accident not to a general visitor centre but to the centre for Jameson cashmere.  This is a cashmere company so famous even I’ve heard of them; they hold a royal warrant, and their shop is full of beautiful, if conservative, things.  Sweaters in jewel-bright colors, ridiculously soft – and of course you can pay as much as you like for them.  Drool-worthy, but not incredibly feasible.
Unfortunately, by the time we’d gotten a bit mislaid and then seen the cathedral, we pretty much had to turn right round and hurry back to Dufftown, as we had an afternoon planned that had a bit more to do with another product for which the region is famous: whiskey.
This may have been just as well, as it was starting to rain as we made our way to the Speyside Cooperage, the only working cooperage in Britain that allows visitors.  A cooper is someone who makes barrels and casks, as you may be aware; a very old art, and a super important one considering that barrels and casks and buckets have been important parts of daily life for basically ever.  They’ve really committed to the cask theming, too: gigantic casks (donated from a brewery in Germany) outside contain picnic tables for visitors with a packed lunch in hand, while the attached tea room is filled with cask-based furnishings, from the tables and chairs to the “paneling” along the front of the bar.
Inside, a tour details the history and practice of the coopering craft; interestingly most of the work done there is repair work, rather than creating new casks.  Casks are crafted of North American white oak – yes, the wood is indeed shipped in – which is pared down to specially-sized planks.  Some of these are destined to become lids: these are fastened together with wooden dowels to form a larger flat surface, but otherwise untouched.  Others are to become staves – the walls of the barrel.
Exactly as was done hundreds of years ago, these staves are arranged in a round shape within a band of riveted iron, with another hammered into place to produce, essentially, a giant bucket.  This bucket is steamed to soften the wood, then carefully bent, with more bands of iron placed to create the classic barrel shape.  If the barrel is to be used for whiskey, then the interior of the barrel is charred slightly, which opens up the wood to allow for better interaction with the alcohol to be stored inside.  Lids are cut and beveled from the doweled planks and hammered into place, a long reed packed around each lid to form a watertight seal.  Et voila: a hogshead.  Modern machinery helps tighten the iron bands into place, and the cask is sent off for testing.
That’s for new casks, of course; when repairing casks it may be a simpler matter of replacing a damaged stave or lid, or scraping off an old, unusable layer of char and re-charring the oak.
The coopers at Speyside are paid by the cask, and apparently can repair on the average 20-25 casks every day; their fastest cooper can do up to thirty (!).  We had a chance to watch this guy at work and it was really something; it doesn’t seem really plausible for someone to wield a hammer that fast, let alone when working with hard oak and iron.  Still, it’s cool to see an ancient craft in use in the modern day, and it appears there’s plenty of local interest: the last apprenticeship that opened up got more than 100 applications.  (And yes, that’s a classic apprenticeship, with a journeyman supervising and everything.)
Here I learned something that becomes evident very fast if you hang around Speyside very long: everyone has different ideas about what the Most Important Thing in whiskey-craft is.  At the cooperage, they unsurprisingly said it was the barrels – the contact of oak and alcohol. (In fairness, this does seem to be somewhat borne out by the part where different designs of barrel will have greater or lesser effect on the flavor of the alcohol stored in it.  Want very oaky booze?  Opt for a smaller barrel, like a firkin; some distilleries insist on these.
I also learned that barrels like these have an active service life of about 60 years or so – a long time!  If you assume a resting time of 12 years, that’s five batches of whiskey, for example.
Our tour included a taste of a liqueur called “Stag’s Breath” that’s made with whiskey and fermented honey.  Probably unacceptably sweet to most serious whiskey fans, but I thought it  pretty delicious, actually – perhaps a bit dangerously so if you’re like me and like sweet things.
Anyway.  That adventure told us all about the barrels; but what about what goes in them?
To find out, we went (at the advice of my old travel book and of our landlady) to Glenfarclas distillery, one of the last truly independent distilleries in Speyside.  Sad but true: almost all of the other whiskies made here are in some manner in hock to the big boys at Chivas or Diageo or whatnot.  Glenfarclas, we were told, is still family-owned and operates in a more traditional manner – so of course that was the distillery we opted to see.
I’ll note here that Glenfarclas’s tour is not considered to be the best one.  Sources agree that the best distillery tour is Balvenie’s – but as waiting periods for that one can be a year or more, that one’s not really a viable option.
Be that as it may, we darted into the visitor centre at Glenfarclas out of a pouring rainstorm to find that a tour had just left – so we hurried to catch up.  The only two people presently on it were a couple from Nevada (I gather the guy was into sales of alcohol in some fashion and he seemed to really know what he was on about); I suspect they were not best pleased with the sudden incursion of a party of four Canadians, but they bore it well.  Our guide was an unassuming but pleasant fellow named Murray who rocked some tartan pants and got right into it with a will.
Whiskey starts with two main ingredients: water and barley.  The water in Glenfarclas’s case comes from a spring rather than from the nearby river or its tributaries – and has at least once been a limiting factor for them, as if the year is dry or they produce too aggressively they can find themselves without enough water to proceed.  Interestingly they seem fine with this, even telling our group they aren’t really interested in expanding much farther than they already have, remaining a relatively boutique product.
The barley, once harvested and threshed, is allowed to sprout (which turns the starch in the barley into sugars) and then toasted (the toasting process is known as “malting,” and is where the “malt” part comes from.). Air circulation is quite important during malting, and to this end most malting sheds are crowned with little structures that look like pagodas.  Supposedly these improve air circulation, but it does make for an incongruous little architectural detail.
The toasted grains are rather coarsely milled, and the resulting mess will then be combined with hot water and yeast to ferment.  (Yes, all of it, including the little bit of flour and the barley hulls.  The hulls prevent the mixture from becoming an airless paste; the flour prevents the water from passing into and through the mixture too quickly.)
Fermentation takes a surprisingly short time compared to everything else in the process, really.  In as little as sixty hours you can have…well, essentially a beer; alcohol, but not distilled.  This distillation takes place in a series of giant alembics, more or less; huge copper devices with bulbous bases and long necks.  The copper is apparently important to the final product, as it helps to remove sulphites and other substances that might cause unpleasant flavors in the whiskey.  Most distilleries heat their alembics with a coil that wraps around the base of the still, but Glenfarclas insists on the application of direct gas heating; Murray informed us that they experimented with the coil method but that it changed the taste of the  whiskey.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the distillery folk seem to feel that the single most important factor in whiskey is the shape of the still; a shorter, fatter still produces a whiskey with a heavier body, while a taller one will give you a lighter, airier result.  During distillation, extracts emerge from the stills into a spirit safe, in this case a kind of steampunk brass thing with a number of globes in it; an experienced still operator can tell from the color and behavior of the liquid emerging into the various gloves and pipes what the percentage of alcohol is and when to begin decanting the relatively small percentage of the substance that will eventually go into those casks to rest.
The resting, of course, is next, and at Glenfarclas the barrels are simply moved into great warehouses to wait out their maturation time.  During this rest – which may be very long – quite a lot of the liquid inside the barrel continues to evaporate away as the fabled “angels’ share.”  We saw more of these warehouses across the road from our B&B; once a distillery and now closed, the warehouses hold whiskey from a large number of distilleries in the area.  (This sharing of warehouse space is not uncommon in the industry in Speyside, it seems; perhaps they feel that it keeps them honest?  At any rate, Glenfarclas doesn’t participate; they like to keep themselves to themselves.)
As the whiskey ages, it takes on more qualities from the wood holding it, as well as losing some of that back-of-the-throat burn common in the youngest of the whiskies.  Once it’s sat there long enough, it’s finally bottled – and at last the tax that was owed the moment distillation started can be collected. (Murray joked that distilleries weren’t so much sellers of alcohol as tax collectors; the tax represents a very great deal of the prices we pay!)
Once our tour completed, we settled in for a quick tasting at the visitor centre – a 10-year whiskey and a 15-year whiskey.  The difference is indeed noticeable – and a splash of water helps to moderate the burning, which I suppose is why whiskey and water is a thing.  (Interestingly, this is just a LITTLE water; an eye dropper, gently used.  Noted, in the event I am ever called upon to serve someone whiskey and water.)
It still has a bit of the burn to it, of course, but an interesting, earthy flavor.  Many elements coming together.  You can see why in Gaelic it’s “the water of life.”  Warming, certainly, on a cold, rainy day like this one, and it was fortifying as we braced ourselves to step back out into the wet.
Our last formal stop of the day was Ballindaloch Castle, whose claim to fame is mainly that it’s still occupied by the same family that built it, years and years later.  More the castle of a laird than a clan chieftain, it’s got a number of the features we’ve seen at other big properties – gardens, picnic areas, and whatnot – and for an additional charge you can tour the castle itself and admire the ridiclously vast collection of china, furniture from the 1700s, authentic paintings from even earlier than that, ancient weaponry, and whatnot.
It is an interesting sort of mixed bag of feelings, touring one of these places.  On the one hand, there are some truly beautiful objects, and occasionally some spiffy stories as well.  On the other, as an uncouth North American, few things inspire class rage quite like seeing a whole hallway full of photos of the family at various Royal events (with invitations, of course, prominently displayed), or a casually-displayed bit of artwork in the nursery that depicts on one side a young girl in plain brown coat, sitting on an obviously lower-class stoop with a bulldog seated next to her and on the other, a girl of similar age, but wearing a fashionable coat in Black Watch plaid, carrying a muff, with a greyhound trotting along beside her.
One of those girls is labeled “The Masses,” and the other was labeled “The Classes.”  Want to guess which?
To cool off my inner Enid a bit, we went for a stroll in the gardens.  These were, as is usual for big places like this, lovely: great smooth lawns occasionally broken by beds of roses and other flowers, or huge, majestic trees.  There was a “doo’cot” (a dovecote; here we learned that dove droppings were once considered a cure for baldness) and a tiny building dressed up to look like a train station: inside were elaborate toy trains, whether for the family alone or for the masses visiting the grounds was unclear.
Mark and I also had a little conversation about our favorite flowers. I like roses best: vivid and varied in color and scent, all the intricate layers unfurling and unfolding around a golden heart that’s rarely seen.  He likes lilies the best, the sort with a single white petal curling round, simple and graceful and austere in form.  I mused there might be a personality test in there somewhere; he seems inclined to agree.
As everyone was still a bit damp from all the earlier rain, we adjourned briefly to our lodgings to change and dry off a bit before heading to dinner at a place called Tannochbrae, in Dufftown.  It wasn’t difficult to find (hunting for a new place is pretty easy in a village with just two primary streets!) and soon we were being escorted to “the bar” to wait by one of the best candidates for the label “strapping young man” I’ve seen in some time…an enormous fellow whose polite soft-spokenness was deeply at odds with a frame that would be more at home punching someone through an oaken door at a pub.  (Also not from around here; his accent sounded familiar, though I didn’t place it until he mentioned it to other diners that he was from Yorkshire.)
Tannochbrae is a guest house as well, so “the bar” was really more of a tiny room crammed to the gills with multitudes of whiskies; a slightly larger area (with, happily, a crackling fire) allowed seating while we waited to be seated for dinner – deep leather armchairs and sturdy wood furnishings that suggested the smoking-room.  The Yorkshireman took our orders for dinner, and we discovered with some mild dismay that the place was rather expensive – but what the hell.  Here we were, so we might as well move forward.
I had a pheasant breast, prepared with bacon and currant sauce, with carrots cooked with star anise and a honey glaze, boiled potatoes, and cauliflower/broccoli cheese, followed by a creme brûlée.  It. Was. Ridiculous.  The Yorkshireman bustled about attentively, looking after us as well as a table of folk who were having some sort of insanely expensive whiskey themed dinner (he’d bring them a whiskey, tell them about it, and then leave the bottle) and who were speaking a language that none of us could readily identify, but that didn’t sound Gaelic, or French, or Spanish, or German.
As we finished our meal and prepared to leave, we saw the Yorkshireman speaking to the chef, who was ALSO a simply massive individual.  (Mark commented that if he was in a tavern with those guys it’d be the safest tavern ever; nobody would dare rob the place for fear of having their heads bashed in.)
As we left, the sound of piping caught our attention, reminding us that tonight was practice night for the local junior division of the bagpipe corps.  (Or whatever it is called.) This meant a group of teenage folk, boys and girls, playing rousing pipe tunes as the drummers tapped away and one (the most senior, I suppose) kept time.  And, really, they were pretty good – it was the just-noticeable wheeze at the end of each piece that marked them as trainees, more than any irregularity in the performance itself.  (Some of the trainees were pretty small folk, too; one girl really didn’t seem much taller than the pipes she was carrying!)
At last the order came to “fall out,” and the group dispersed.  On that note, so did we…making our way back to Fairbank House and thence to bed at last.